(28/04/07) – The boxset begins with The Scarlett Letter (1973), probably the least recognisable of all of Wenders’ films. An adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of adultery in 17th century New England, this period drama lacks most of the traits of Wenders works. The film is, however, notable for the first appearance in Wenders’ work of Rudiger Vogler, the actor to appear more often than any other in the director’s films. Also of note in this film is the influence of painting on some of the shots, in this case, the interior paintings of Vermeer. Painting, as well as photography, has a central place in many of Wenders’ films, often with specific works being very clearly referenced.
Wrong Move (1975) forms the second part of the ‘road trilogy’, three films starring Rudiger Vogler. The films form a loose trilogy with as many differences as similarities.The film is an adaptation of Goethe’s The Education of Wilhelm Meister. Shot in colour and written by the Austrian playwright and novelist, Peter Handke, Wrong Move has as much in common with the earlier The Goalie’s Fear of the Penalty (1970), than it does with the much freer black and white films of the trilogy, Alice in the Cities (1974), and Kings of the Road (1976). What it does share with the other two films is an examination of the cultural situation of post-war West Germany.
This early body of features established Wenders, alongside Fassbinder, Herzog and Schlondorff, as one of the forerunners of the New German Cinema. Following the road trilogy, the early period of Wenders’ German films culminated with The American Friend (1977). In a film that still stands up as an effective thriller today, Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan, a frame-maker and art restorer, who is set up by Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley. Believing that he has an incurable disease Jonathan is duped into becoming a hit-man, He develops a friendship with the strange American. This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a fine example of Wenders’ ability to work successfully in various languages. The film reflects the awkward relationship of West Germany and The United States in the post-war years. The mix of mistrust and admiration Jonathan has of Tom and the power the latter has over him could in some ways be seen to mirror the view Wenders may have had as of Hollywood. He had grown up watching B- movies, Westerns and Noir films, and, if the early period of the films are an examination of the Germany he grew up in, The American Friend is the bridge towards making an American film; its success led Wenders to the United States to make Hammett(1982), for Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope.
Hammett took four years and several re-writes to complete. The end result was not a great success and the experience was an incredibly frustrating one for Wenders. While on breaks in the filming/writing schedule Wenders made several inquisitive films questioning the role of the film-maker and the predicaments of film, these include The State of Things(1982), Nick’s Movie/Lightning Over Water(1980), Reverse Angle(1982) and Room 666(1982). This period also brought Wenders into contact with Sam Shepard, an American playwright and actor who would go on to write Paris, Texas.
Lightning Over Water is an awkward film to watch. It is a collaborative effort with Nicholas Ray, who had appeared in a cameo role in The American Friend. Ray was terminally ill at the time of the project and Wenders’ intention to film till the end received much criticism. The resulting film unfortunately is not the film that the pair intended to make, yet it serves as a document to the career and final days of one of the great American directors.
In Room 666 Wenders captures the fashion tastes of several film makers whilst also recording their views on Wenders’ question ‘ Is cinema becoming a dead language, an art which is already in the process of decline?’ Filmed in Wenders’ hotel suite during the 1982 Cannes Festival the film highlights Wenders concern for the history and future of film.
In many ways the period making Hammett and these side project films are seen as a detour in Wenders’ film making journey. The early German films can be seen as successful and confident whereas the films made between 1978-1982 are doubtful and searching for a new direction. It could be seen that Wenders had gone to America to make a great American film and in some ways failed and was shaken up by the experience. In retrospect it is possible to see that this period as something of a second apprenticeship. To make a great American film Wenders would have to do so on his own terms and in his own style utilising both what he had learned in his earlier films and the four year period spent making Hammett.
The resulting film, Paris, Texas is arguably one of the greatest films ever made. In some ways this film heralded the true beginning of the second phase of Wenders’ film-making, a period which would combine highly accomplished feature films whilst developing the director’s documentary skills. The story of drifter Travis’ reunion with his brother and his attempt to bring a child back to its mother is reminiscent of John Ford’s The Searchers***. It is also very definitely a Wenders’ film with a return to the road and a perfect harmony of Sam Shepard and Wenders’ story, Robby Muller’s photography and Ry Cooder’s stunning soundtrack.
Wenders’ next major project was to be a return to Germany and to working with Peter Handke. Wings of Desire fuses all the elements of Wender’s earlier works to create a wonderful mixture of realism and lyrical fantasy encapsulating the strange atmosphere of the Berlin in its final years as a divided city.Wenders choice of cameraman for Wings of Desire was the veteran French cinematographer, Henri Alekan, who had worked earlier with the director on The State of Things. Wenders has spoken of how he was interested in trying to capture a similar feel to the poetic styles of the French Classical films of Marcel Carne /Jacques Prevert as well as those by Jean Cocteau, for whom Alekan had beautifully shot Beauty and the Beast(1946). There are definite echoes of Cocteau’s other famous film poem, Orphee (1950), in Wings of Desire. Both films concern the desire of immortals for mortals, and a breaking of the rules of nature to traverse from one world to the other. Wenders’ film referencing is always interwoven with other films, paintings, writing and music and so much is put into the film that these references form only a thread in the fabric of a unique film.
In this period Wenders also made more side project documentaries, two of which are included in the boxset. Tokyo-Ga (1985), allows Wenders to search for traces of one of his director heroes, Yasjiro Ozu, in the Japanese director’s homeland. In many ways the film serves also as a location trip for Until the End of the World, in which Wenders again visits some of the the Japanese cultural curiosities such as sleeping pods, pachinko halls, rooftop golf, and country inns. Notebooks on Cities and Clothes(1989) is a film diary of the fashion Designer Yohji Yamamoto and his shows in Europe. These films are both interesting films in their own right and show a progression from earlier, more awkward, documentaries, such as Lightning Over Water and Room 666. This development in documentary film-making is evident in the highly successful Buena Vista Social Club and also in Trick of the Light (1995), which studies the story of the German film pioneers, the Skladanowsky Brothers. The style of this film with its mixture of interviews, re-inactment and technique homage, is echoed later in The Soul of A Man. In using film students to collaborate on the film there is an echo of the earlier collaboration with Ray and his students.
Until the End of the World in some ways concludes this second period of Wenders’ film-making. This film is without a doubt the ultimate Wim Wenders road movie. The story is global and slightly futuristic, based in part on a Peter Carey short story but for the most part a travelogue of locations Wenders had previously visited in ealier films, or as a photographer. The project had been in Wenders’ head for most of the 1980s. The full length 280-minute version of the film is testament to Wenders’ ability to put together a film filmed on many locations with a mix of languages and included a subplot involving a camera that can allow the blind to see mentally projected images. The central theme of the film is one of addiction and this is mirrored by the pursuit of characters after each others’ affections and the addiction to images, memories and dreams.
End of part II – see links for parts I and III.
Anchor Bay’s Wim Wender’s boxset is out now. Titles included (referred to in bold italics in the text)are The American Friend, Lightning Over Water, A Notebook on Cities and Clothes, Paris Texas, The Scarlet Letter, Room 666, Tokyo-Ga, A Trick of the Light, Wings of Desire and The Wrong Move. Please follow the links provided to purchase a copy and support Kamera by doing so.